MATCHUP #1: Slow Bar (1) vs. Tabor Tavern (16)
533 SE Grand Ave., 503-230-7767, slowbar.net. 11:30 am-2:30 am daily.
Since Slow Bar opened in 2004, it has been known to every bartender in town for stiff drinks, deep booths, a jukebox stacked with metal and that towering Slowburger ($12 with fries), cooked on a flat-top seasoned over time into something that might even be subtlety. Have you had the Slowburger only at Slowburger, at the Ocean food mall on Northeast Glisan Street? Then you haven't had the Slowburger. And yes, its towering onion-ring construction makes it tenuous. Thrillist's national burger critic, Kevin Alexander, declared it too unwieldy for his presumably tiny hands. But Portland is not a welcome place for short-fingered vulgarians.
5325 E Burnside St., 503-208-3544, tabortavern.com. 11 am to 11 pm Monday-Wednesday, 11 am-midnight Thursday-Saturday, 10 am-11 pm Sunday.
The Tabor Burger ($13 with fries, soup or salad) is precisely what would happen if a hamburger got attacked by an episode of Frasier: arugula, brioche bun, blue cheese and bacon jam. But it comes together better than expected—a balance of fat against salt and bitterness, rather than acidity. But is it weird I sometimes feel I'm eating a Cobb salad?
WINNER: Slow Bar, in a rout. Is it fair that the Tabor Burger had to come out against the angry LeBron of Portland pub burgers, the tower of sulfurous onion, the gruyere monster stack? Perhaps it is not. But it's the nature of the game. And the Slowburger pounds Tabor into the paint.
MATCHUP #2: Interurban (8) vs. C Bar (9)
4057 N Mississippi Ave., 503-284-6669, interurbanpdx.com. 3 pm-2:30 am Monday-Friday, 10 am-2:30 am Saturday-Sunday.
The boar burger ($12)is cooked medium rare the way pork usually can't be, topped with Los Roast Hatch chiles and cilantro-jalapeño queso fresco, along with pickled jalapeños and aioli. Interurban is also one of too-few Portland bar burgers with fried rather than raw onions. The result is a spicy-fatty monstrosity with the fattiness and gaminess of boar: Instant winner. Only one thing, though. There's enough pig's blood in that burger to bathe Milo Yiannopoulos.
2880 SE Gladstone St., 503-230-8808, cbarportland.com. 4 pm-2:30 am Monday-Friday, 10 am-2:30 am Saturday-Sunday.
The C Bar Burger ($11 with fries, soup or salad) is a mountainous grill-charred beef patty piled high with thick onion and tomato. Its bitter arugula fronds transform the copious mayo into yogurt somehow, making the whole production feel much like a gyro. It's an odd, but oddly addictive combo.
WINNER: Interurban. We are told C Bar's chef burger—a much more monstrous assembly, with eccentric choices like applesauce—may have been a bitter pick, Interurban boar patty—an invasive species in the burger kingdom—stampeded over the beefburger.
MATCHUP #3: Sandy Hut (5) vs. Expatriate (12)
1430 NE Sandy Blvd., 503-235-7972. 2 pm-2:30 am Monday-Friday, 10:30 am-2:30 am Saturday-Sunday.
The nearly century-old Sandy Hut's Skinny Man is "burger" the same way the newly rehabbed Hut itself is "dive bar"—an archetypal quotation of the form. The Skinny Man is lettuce, tomato, onion and cheddar on a quarter-pound patty and toasted bun, with Thousand Island sauce the menu says has a million islands in it. In its simplicity, it offers nostalgia more visceral than the Al Hirschfeld mural on the wall. But its success depends on sauce distribution and char that can vary.
5424 NE 30th Ave., expatriatepdx.com. 5 pm-midnight daily.
Naomi Pomeroy-owned mixology bar Expatriate now has a hilariously faithful rendition of the Quarter Pounder, except way richer and served medium rare: a thick pasting of American cheese on much better beef than you get at Mickey D's, topped with Heinz and French's and a sliver of raw onion between that perfect Elmer's Glue gluten-pasted bun. It's dime-store poetry—delivered, albeit, at $13 a pair.
WINNER: Expatriate. It's classic replica vs. classic replica, pub burger vs. fast food, volume line-cooking vs. fine-dining pedigree. Well, score one for the Beard Awards: The quarter-pounder Expatriate-style slaps the buns off the Skinny Man, American cheese and all. It's all gooey pleasure. While technically an upset in the seeding—we hadn't tried Expatriate's burger yet, and so it stayed a dark horse—it's hardly a Cinderella story.
MATCHUP #4: Bar Bar (4) vs. Free House (15)
3939 N Mississippi Ave., 503-288-3895, mississippistudios.com/bar-bar. 11 am-2 am daily.
Bar Bar's classic burger is a wadded-up and wonderful thing, shrouded in a squishy potato bun from Italian bakery Alessio. It contains shredded lettuce for perfect sauce delivery, Painted Hills beef and a combination of special sauce and housemade ketchup that comes off like spiced molasses. It is like fast food, but better: There's just enough lettuce crunch to counteract mushiness, and a sneakily beautiful balance of acid, fat and salt. And at $6, it's the cheapest burger on the bar list. Perhaps this burger is not as ambitious or pedigreed as some—but neither is your mom, and you maybe still love her.
1325 NE Fremont St., 503-946-8161, freehousepdx.com. 4 pm-midnight daily.
Fremont Street's Free House is a place of resolute middlebrow comforts—including a reasonably priced $9 burger with an expertly toasted bun, very seasoned meat and mild-spiced sauce, plus a thick slab of Tillamook hard-welded to the patty. Along with a side of house chips, the burger comes with quick-pickled cukes to counteract the burger's dryness. But while the meat tastes perfectly seasoned all by itself, the salt builds up.
WINNER: Bar Bar. That perfect ratio of mush to crispness, and acid to fat, makes it an oddly perfect creature. Free House's meat and ingredients were better, but they lose on a common error: Cheese adds salt to patty that would be beautifully seasoned if it were steak–and can turn the whole production into Utah flats.
MATCHUP #5: Tannery Bar (6) vs. Pop Tavern (11)
5425 E Burnside St., 503-236-3610, tannerybarpdx.com, 4 pm-1 am Monday-Saturday, 9 am-2 pm Saturday-Sunday.
Tannery Bar's burger is a giantess—a 6-inch-tall stack of big beef, fluffed lettuce, meaty tomato, copious raw onion, goat-milk cheddar, sweet onion compound and bacon. But the burger is $16 with fries, which means the thing better be Rembrandt on a bun, and thick offseason tomato and abundant raw onion are trouble spots. The bun is thrown in an oven rather than grill-toasted, making it too hot to touch on top but undertoasted on the bottom. This burger may have a hill to climb.
825 N Killingsworth St., 503-206-8483. 2 pm-2:30 am daily.
Pop Tavern is full of kitsch, but no trivia. The No Dice is a pub burger made the way a dive-bar burger should be—a half-pound utility burger devoted to simplicity, with a touch of grill char. The smashed patty is medium-cooked, with onion and tomato sliced thin enough to get crunch and juice without distraction, the lettuce shredded for maximum sauce dispersal. It ain't Mozart, but it's $6.50 with crinkle fries—which is the purest music our ears know.
WINNER: Pop Tavern—in maybe the most savage blowout and upset of the bracket. Pop Tavern stuck to fundamentals like a Hoosier, but Tannery Bar? We got solid recommendations on this burger, but the scouting was off. That cast-iron fry left the burger carbonized on the outside and half raw within, and the bun was toasted only to the level of mealy but was too hot to touch—not to mention that the thick beefsteak tomato and raw onion made us feel like we were digging through a wet laundry basket for the burger. Tannery's food is usually very good—but that burger took a dive today.
MATCHUP #6: Red Fox (3) vs. Backyard Social (14)
5128 N Albina Ave., 503-282-2934, redfoxpdx.com. 3 pm-1:30 am daily.
Red Fox is a bar whose burger ($10 with fries) is legend in North Portland, but almost unknown outside of it. The secrets to its success are Worcestershire sauce, a grill more seasoned than its Painted Hills beef, and judicious application of blue cheese along with three crisp sheets of lettuce. On our most recent visit, the tomato was almost shockingly fresh—ripe and red for a winter month. When the Red Fox burger is perfect, dear Lord, it is perfect. But there are many cooks in the kitchen, leading to occasional inconsistency.
1914 N Killingsworth St., 503-719-4316, backyardsocialpdx.com. Noon-midnight daily.
The $10 Backyard Burger is a tall stack with creamy "awesome sauce" and American cheese sweltering over an almost ovoid 5-ounce patty, sitting on a bed of mini greens and thick-cut house pickles. Both patty and bun are nicely grill-kissed—though the burger arrived me.
WINNER: Red Fox. What a champ of a burger.
MATCHUP #7: Tryst (7) vs. Grain & Gristle (10)
19 SW 2nd Ave., 503-477-8637, bartryst.com. 4 pm-2:30 am Wednesday-Sunday.
Ankeny Alley spot Tryst, in the old Berbati's space, is a homey bar with a friendly owner who's almost always there slinging drinks. There's a healthy smattering of '90s-style Asian fusion on the menu—and this includes the burger ($12 with fries). But the accents are subtle, with the chili-garlic of hoisin submerged into the aioli, and sichuan pepper infused into crisp house pickles. The fried shallots come off like grilled onions. And that beef is beefy as fuck. Turns out Asian flavors on a burger are downright all-American, and this is a fine burger. The $7 happy hour price tag is a privilege.
Grain & Gristle
1473 NE Prescott St., 503-288-4740, grainandgristle.com. Noon-midnight Monday-Friday, 9 am-3 pm and 5 pm-midnight Saturday-Sunday.
I feel like a fool. I have eaten at Grain & Gristle for years, but never ordered the burger ($12 with fries). The ingredients are as simple as a scratch-made pie: The thick half-pound patty of medium-rare beef comes from a line of Herefords cultivated since 1856 at Oregon's Hawley Ranch, butchered by sister restaurant Old Salt in Cully and fresh-ground each day. The pickles are housemade, as is the garlic-lemon aioli. The bun is baked by Grain & Gristle's former in-house baker, the green lettuce shocked in frigid water for crispness. And that's the end of the ingredient list. It is simplicity as virtue, with all things made only for their purpose in this burger.
WINNER: Grain and Gristle. The Tryst burger is hard to let go of in the first round, but G & G struck the perfect balance with startling simplicity—no burger on this list did so much with so few ingredients.
MATCHUP #8: Parasol Bar (2) vs. Doug Fir Lounge (15)
Parasol (Sam Gehrke)
215 SE 9th Ave., 503-239-8830, parasolbar.com. 5 pm-2 am daily.
The Parasol burger ($9) is a mountain of fast-caramelized patty, pork belly, multiple kinds of quick-pickled veg and butter lettuce on a bun toasted to a slight char, a stack of lightly sugary umami with enough salt that we wrongly thought it had been marinated in soy sauce. It is a worthy successor, though a bit loose with the sodium.
Doug Fir Lounge
830 E Burnside St,, 503-231-9663, dougfirlounge.com. 7 am-2 am daily.
Ah, the Fir Burger: Your name is so gross. When I tell people I'm going to eat one, they look terrified. But back when Doug Fir stayed open till 4 am, the bacon-topped Fir Burger ($9) was famous. It comes charred outside and juicy inside, with tangy mayo and lightly pickled, crisp onions and cukes stacked onto its brioche bun. Still, Tillamook cheese comes hard-welded to a patty that's a bit dense and underseasoned—and damn if that ain't a lot of arugula.
WINNER: Parasol Bar. That Parasol burger whittled the Fir Burger to kindling.